When I started writing How I Live Now, I e-mailed my agent and asked how long a book is supposed to be.

In retrospect it strikes me as a funny question, one that goes right alongside ‘how many characters should a book have? and ‘is it OK to set my book in 1975?’

In a slightly different category is, ‘how many hours a day do you work?’ and ‘what sort of pen do you use?’ (Like I use a pen. Like I can ever find a pen that writes in this house. If I could depended on anyone in my family to put the tops back on pens so they didn’t dry out, even once in a bloody blue moon, I probably wouldn’t even need to invest in Macbooks. But that’s another post.)

Anyway, you get my point. There are no right answers.

Facebook and twitter are filled with people posting how many words they wrote today, and every time I see a post I think, so…were they 3,000 good words, or just 3,000 words?

Don’t get me wrong. Putting the words down on paper is important. But as to the number of words — I think it probably goes without saying that ten good words are better than 10,000 mediocre ones.

Through teaching and talking to aspiring writers, I’ve noticed that the big questions always seem to involve the best way to: find an agent, structure a novel, use social media, get good reviews, choose the right market, be a bestseller.

To which I’d say — write your book.  Your book. Don’t look left and right. Don’t worry about how long it is. Don’t follow the trends. Don’t tweet because your PR says it’s good for sales (it’s not, except in very occasional instances, and it wastes vast swathes of time). Don’t subscribe to The Bookseller to see what size advances everyone else is getting. Don’t write vampire books or middle-aged soft porn because they happen to be trendy at the moment. (Though you’d have to be blind not to see that middle-aged soft porn and Kindles were made for each other…)

That’s all for today.

I have to catch a train for the Hexham book festival and I’m not sure where Hexham is. I always like to check a map before I go in case i find myself shouting HOW ARE YOU LANCASHIRE?? to an audience of 50,000 screaming fans in Lanarkshire.

Or in the case of Hexham, Northumberland.



21 thoughts on “Word count.

  1. jackie 7 years ago

    Sometimes I don’t even write all day. I just think. But the question no one, not anyone who has ever asked a question about books has never asked is ‘how much time do you spend thinking?” or ‘how many thoughts have you had today?’ Sometimes wandering the pathways of your own imagination is the best way to get work done. Have fun in Hexham, Meg.

    1. Meg Rosoff 7 years ago

      You’re very right, Jackie. No one ever asks that. And it is the big question.

    2. Shelley Souza 7 years ago

      Following on from Jackie’s comment on the importance of “thinking,” contemplating; almost nothing is ever said about the importance of internal logic, which can only be arrived at through thinking deeply about the characters. I would love to see a post on this, Meg.

      Also, although you mentioned the subconscious in your post on voice, I’d like to see more written about writers whose subconscious generates the narrative, by writers who work this way; as I believe you do. For these writers (and I am one), the standard way of plotting, recommended by outliners, and “taught” by most craft books and teachers, is bewildering to the subconscious. In my case, it’s not that I don’t understand the words, or can’t apply the method to another writer’s work; it’s that my subconscious seems to be incapable of applying it to my own. At least, not overtly. However, I have discovered that the internal logic of the characters contains within it the inherent structure of the plot. That’s a post I’d love to read.

    3. Véronique David-Martin 7 years ago

      Shelley, what you say really touches me as it describes precisely the way I too write. As I mentioned in response to Meg’s excellent (and comforting!) post on plotting, my books are born off the workings of my unconscious. It takes a long time for the characters, their backstories and idiosyncracies to emerge from that primordial soup and bubble up to the surface of my mind (my conscious) where they give birth to themselves, the story and the book. I find the waiting (the pregnancy!) always daunting and riddled with self doubt, but over the years I have learnt to trust this slow and mysterious inner process. It gives me so much comfort to read here the testimonies of like-minded authors as I always feel inadequate compared to more regimented, so-many-words-a-day types of writers. Thank you!

  2. K M Lockwood 7 years ago

    Oh yes – respect for your own work – and your own thoughts Jackie – they’re essential. Today my words have been 1007 – but like Eric Morecambe’s piano notes, they may not necessarily be in the right order.
    Thanks for the post.

    1. jackie 7 years ago

      I have only written words on facebook. I have looked at notebooks as I do write with a pen not a mac book and I want to get on with a long shelved project and bring it back to life. I have sat and knitted and thought about nothing and stuff.
      I remember Viv French being asked a question once by a child. “Did you write all of these words in this book?” “Yes, ” Viv replied. ” Even the full stops and the capital letter?” Love that.
      With picture books less is more. Sometimes so few is just incredible skill as in ‘Rosie’s Walk’ and ‘The Clown’.

  3. Geraldine Brennan 7 years ago

    Hexham’s lovely, Meg. Enjoy!

  4. Nicky Schmidt 7 years ago

    Ah, I love Jackie’s response! It consoles me no end. House building detracts from writing words but not from thinking and dreaming up ideas.

  5. Amanda Lillywhite 7 years ago

    Those amwriting updates on Twitter can be a bit intimidating, perhaps we should start an amthinking thread.
    Great post Meg and I love your tagging.

  6. Cathy Butler 7 years ago

    It’s the home of the Venerable Bede, isn’t it? (He used a pen.)

  7. David Hepworth 7 years ago

    Talking to old mate the other day who does a lot of ghostwriting. He said that for the first time ever he’d turned down a job because he couldn’t imagine writing 140,000 words in the time allowed. If I had to write that many words I’d have a breakdown. Whereas I could knock you out 500 words in the next half hour. It’s all a question of what you’re used to.

  8. Antony John 7 years ago

    Couldn’t agree more on the matter of words vs. good words. First off, I think all writers can sense when they’ve produced something good (and therefore something that stands a decent chance of making it into a book) instead of simply “getting words down,” and there’s a sense of creative satisfaction that comes with that. Second, the only way poor prose becomes good prose is through extensive editing; and so (to reiterate Jackie’s point) you either need to do your thinking in advance, or during the editing process. Personally, I think the former is far more fun.

    1. jackie 7 years ago

      It has taken me years and years to realise that ‘work’ isn’t when you are sitting down at the paper face chipping away at the creative seams. The real work happens inside, and everything becomes part of the creative life, when all is going well. I still suffer from not being able to tell when what I have is right, or good, or whatever it’s called. I did have the wonderful experience of one of my editors who is working on my current project saying that they had been reading my book and that it is really lovely. 1) glad that they are reading it 2) even more glad that the sales people have read and enjoyed it.
      By the way, someone suggested that I tried teaming up with someone famous so that I could get my work better known the other day. I don’t think he has read a word that I have written but I treasure his comment and hold it very close to my heart!

  9. Christina Wilsdon 7 years ago

    Totally agree on the “how to market my book (that I haven’t written yet)” and “how do I get an agent (for that book I haven’t written yet).” Often when I go to writing events, that is what people who want to write are all abuzz about–not what they’re reading, or what they like to write or want to write.

    Re Jackie’s anecdote about the full-stops/capital letters author…I once did a little presentation to a group of 3rd graders about publishing books. One child was all agog looking at a copy of one of my books. “You wrote that whole book?” he said, eyes wide. “Yes,” I replied. But before I could bask in glory, he said what you might be predicting he would…”Wow! You really have neat handwriting!”

  10. Charlotte 7 years ago

    Saw you in the hexham today. You were great!

    1. Meg Rosoff 7 years ago

      Thanks Charlotte. You guys were great too!

  11. April Tucholke 7 years ago

    Whenever I hear that someone wrote 3000 words in one day/sitting, I want to punch them in the face.

    1. Meg Rosoff 7 years ago

      Now, April. To each his/her own. But yes, I know what you mean.

  12. bookwitch 7 years ago

    I obviously don’t have a book to write. But I have a lot of mending that is very very desperate, and if I do some of that, I should get some good blog posts out if it, at least.
    I should, shouldn’t I?

  13. Carrie-Anne 7 years ago

    I never even knew till last year that writers nowadays are even supposed to count words. I honestly don’t care how many words I write in a day, a week, or a month. Each book should be merely as long or short as the plot trajectory necessitates, and it’s not fair to make people feel stressed out if they happen to write a book that’s a lot longer or shorter than current so-called norms, even if that length is perfect for the type of story they created.

    My completed adult historicals are all WAY longer than many people today are used to seeing (335,000 words, 406,000 words, 387,000 words), and I refuse to apologize for their length, as though I’ve committed some massive sin because I deliberately planned and plotted them as very long sagas spanning many years, with many characters and subplots. I’ve heard from a number of other people who are just as tired as I am of seeing so many books that are all of 288 pages and who want a return to the long, sprawling sagas that were very popular not all that long ago. I don’t want to write adult novels that are short. I want to write the type of novels I grew up reading, with meat on their bones.

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